Here, at the beginning of my first post as a guest blogger for Powells.com, as well as my first guest blog anywhere, I feel compelled to point out, as I take a break from packing for a trip to Powell's
, that my own, 10-year long trip to a book about Henry David Thoreau
, noted New England writer, began in Portland, around 1998, in an office building on SW Fourth and Washington Street.
There, drinking Coffee People coffee and poring over the U.S. Geological Survey maps of New Jersey that I had purchased at Powell's travel bookstore, then in Pioneer Square, I saw a little marsh-surrounded notation in the center of a large polluted swamp that said what I could not believe: Walden Swamp.
(A Bean Field in New Jersey, via the Library of Congress)
How could I get there, given that it was in polluted waters off the New Jersey Turnpike? It was unhikeable, but was it even possible to reach it by canoe? And, most importantly, what did it have to do with the author of Walden himself, Henry David Thoreau?
Once I canoed there, I discovered that it was barely even land — building a cabin was out of the question, but it gave me the idea to plant some jokes in the book that I eventually wrote, The Meadowlands, and it was a joke that I worked for a long time. I wrote a book about rats that was set in an alley, a la Thoreau setting up at Walden Pond, and even started with a line of homage:
Me: When I wrote the following account of my experiences with rats, I lived in an apartment building...
HDT: When I wrote the following pages, or the bulk of them, I lived alone, in the woods...
One of the many jokes in Walden, after all, is on the name Walden, which Thoreau puns on: walled in. (Walden Pond was walled in by hills.) I like to think that a rat alley is also walled in. An alley is itself, by definition, walled in, a street surrounded by walls.
I suppose I should come to a point in this blog, and I will do that by saying that I finally realized that Thoreau wasn't the nature writer I'd gone in thinking he was. I began to see that the Thoreau I had in my head was a joker, a punaholic, a comic with spiritual and economic intent — writing at a time of economic panic and crisis, a time when people were worried about whether or not the American economy was even working, if you can imagine. I began to see that Thoreau was a guy who might have been up for a canoe trip to look for the undiscovered body of Jimmy Hoffa, as I did in the Meadowlands on a trip from Oregon. Or if not that, per se, some trip along those lines. Thoreau, in fact, was a kind of naturized city guy.
It's a long story, and this is a blog, and I would not presume to post for too long. So let me just say what my itinerary is for this week, the week of the launch of The Thoreau You Don't Know. I am in Brooklyn, New York, at this moment, blogging. Tomorrow I go to the White House, for the Saint Patrick's Day reception that the President and First Lady are throwing. I am going as a member of the How Not to Get Rich Orchestra, the orchestra named after the eponymous book I wrote, which, although I did not completely realize it at the time, was very Thoreau. Then, if I don't pass out due to extreme nervousness, I will leave for California to do some reporting and to see a play in L.A., after which I will arrive in Portland, Oregon, my second hometown.
On a final, coffee-related note: believe it or not, a Stumptown Coffee opened up just down the street from me here in Brooklyn. One of the things I love about Stumptown, aside from the coffee, is that they were one of the early bases of a band formerly based in Portland, a band that played at my last reading at Powell's (for a book called Cross Country). I am speaking, of course, of Foghorn Stringband. Some of the members have gone on to more music; some have gone on to food, as this Portland foodcart blog indicates; and some are just incredible printers, still printing, as they do at Stumptown Printers.
As you can see, when I am not in Portland, I think about Portland. I also think about swamps, rats, Thoreau, my sister (who has an incredible garden in Portland), and the light on the Cascade Mountains, just after the rain. Portland is one of those places where you can have a life, as opposed to what people elsewhere strive to have, which is a career. When I post again, maybe I will discuss how having a life, as opposed to having a career, while living in a city could possible have anything to do with Thoreau, a guy who pitched a hermit out in a cabin in the middle of some trees.